History, Economic History, and Generalities


Penguin Atlas of Ancient History   *****  In this series of books, Colin McEvedy concisely explains the political, diplomatic, military, and economic history of the western world.  These excellent little books focus on important trends and omit unnecessary fluff.  This series of books are about understanding the all-important big picture of history.    The New Penguin Atlas of Medieval History  *****  by Colin McEvedy.  Tribal, ethnic, and linguistic movements and migrations of the period are well covered. Penguin Atlas of Modern History (To 1815)  *****  by Colin McEvedy.  This time period was full of social change and attempts to dominate Europe. The Penguin Atlas of Recent History: Europe Since 1815  *****  by Colin McEvedy.  In particular, this volume well explains the important changes in the Balkans. 


The Penguin Atlas of African History  ****1/2  All of Colin McEvedy's atlases are excellent.  Although I'd never had that great of interest in African history, I knew McEvedy would make it interesting.  After explaining the evolution of man, the author focuses mainly on North Africa then on later European exploration and imperialism.


The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Pacific  ****1/2  by Colin McEvedy.  Although excellent, this is the most flawed of the series.  This is due to the inadequate maps with the Burma area right at the book's crease.  Especially interesting was early discussion of the races and tribes of Asia, and I would have loved to read more along these lines.  I would have also have preferred the maps and discussion to extend to India or even Iran, but hopefully the author will eventually write on this too. 


Wilderness at Dawn  *****  This well written book by Ted Morgan follows several colonial and pioneer groups as they settle on the frontier in search of their American dream.  This book of popular history is difficult to put down.

Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages  ****  The Gies show that the Middle Ages were a time full of technical innovation.  They argue that the Renaissance was a natural progression from the Middle Ages.

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations    *****  By David Landes.  This is one of the best economic history books I have ever read.  His arguments may not explain everything, but he shows how cultural differences help explain economic success and failure.  These cultural differences are typically ignored by economists who assume a perfect "Newtonian" world or who refuse to question the dogma of political correctness.  It's time to question the assumptions.  This book was a bestseller for good reason.

The Origins of the Modern World: A Global and Ecological Narrative  *****   This book shows that the anti-Eurocentric crowd have some interesting thoughts on how the world has developed.  They argue that due to greater agricultural productivity in the East, presumably meaning cultivation of rice, individual Asians were richer than Europeans up until the Industrial Revolution.  As a result, Europeans had to use force to engage in Eastern trade.  Also convincingly argued is that coal was the vital force of the Industrial Revolution.  Before coal, people's energy expenditure was limited to the sun's annual output.  Regardless of how valid these arguments are, they are refreshing and different and provide an elegant explanation of the otherwise unexplainable.

Guns, Germs, and Steel   *****  Because a book named "Geography, Germs, and Agriculture" wouldn't sell as well.  Jared Diamond argues that geography is the reason why civilization developed in Eurasia and not the Western Hemisphere, Africa, or the Pacific.  With a large number of plants and animals that could be domesticated in Eurasia, people were able to create an agricultural surplus and engage in activities other than agriculture.  The emergence of agriculture is among the most interesting sections of the book, but sadly he says little about the history which follows.  This is a very well written book, but the author has a clear liberal bias, even questioning the superiority of our modern way of life.  He feels the need to repeatedly declare that he is not a racist, no doubt for lazy book reviewers who read a page or two and declare him a racist.  Nevertheless, I highly recommend it. 


Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of the Modern World  *****  The author convincingly argues that a massive volcanic explosion in the early 500s near the equator changed history with famine, plague, and migrations, affecting the whole world from China to Europe to the Western Hemisphere - and both the northern and southern hemispheres.  Impressive flowcharts show the many feedback loops which make history so interesting.  Among the many effects are the rise of Islam and the beginning of Judaism in Eastern Europe. 

The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850  *****  Brian Fagan shows how a global warm-spell in the late medieval period led to the Viking discovery of American and how the later cooling affected European development.  Famine, flood, and plague were caused by the little Ice Age and had profound affects on agriculture.  With less rigid social structures, the Netherlands and Britain adapted, creating a capitalist agriculture which created an ample surplus of food, allowing farm workers to move to industrial jobs.  The resulting pollution now threatens our own environmental crisis.  Ancient feudal law and stiff social hierarchy in France prevented agricultural progress and helped spark revolution.  Heavy rains in Ireland led to the introduction and heavy reliance on the potato, turning the potato blight of the 1840s into a severe famine and leading to the massive migration to America.    


Floods, Famines, and Emperors : El Nino and the Fate of Civilizations  ****  Brian Fagan shows the effects of El Nino on South America and Central America.  This is a very good book, but not as good as "The Little Ice Age."

Bionomics: Economy As Ecosystem  *****  Michael Rothschild shows how the economy is similar to nature and the process of evolution.  He argues that capitalism naturally occurs when man is free.  He compares DNA with the printing press and modern methods of information transfer.  Rothschild takes pains to say he is not a social Darwinist, as if it is a terrible shameful disease.

The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life  *****  Robert Wright shows that the human mind has evolved over time along with the body.  He shows that morals are genetically encoded but are not entirely concrete since different life and reproductive strategies can be successful.  This book along with the one above will help you see the world very differently.  Unlike the previous author, Wright to does not see social Darwinism as a disease. 

Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny  *****  Although endorsed by Bill Clinton and somewhat leftist, this Robert Wright sequel to "The Moral Animal" is a profound discussion of human history and evolution.  Wright argues that human history shows clear signs of society gaining complexity to the benefit of almost everyone.  This is achieved by nonzero sum games in which typically each side benefits to some degree.  He shows how "nonzero sumness" has affected evolution, making probable the emergence of intelligent life from lesser forms.  The most interesting historical discussion is the emergence of agriculture.  He shows that hunter-gatherers practice a crude proto-agriculture and argues that the emergence of agriculture was a predictable, natural event.      



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